Michael Sailstorfer’s Folkestone Digs began with a press announcement, which simply stated that 30 pieces of gold worth £10,000 had been buried under the sand of the harbour beach of a Kentish coastal town. The ensuing hunt for gold involved hundreds who had travelled from across the UK, with the story being reported across global news channels.
The work plays upon the tension between the carnival-like atmosphere of the hunt and the avaricious desire for wealth. But concerns that Sailstorfer’s act simply exploits those who answer his claxton call in this coastal town may be missing some of the more subtle qualities as it unfolds.
The piece acts to transform the perception of the working harbour beach, and works through public performance of those who dig and those who watch from afar. Public artworks such as this use the mode of storytelling to seep into our collective consciousness, playing on the literary associations of buried treasure and the emotional implications of this precious metal. Using contemporary methods of distribution, such as social media, the work operates as a catalyst to draw a mass of people to a place to participate in a communal act of searching.
Whilst some sole treasure-hunters are to be found on the edges of the beach, the majority of hunters have come as a group – families, couples, young lads and groups of friends – transforming their experience from one of individual gratification into a social experience.
As the pock-marked moon landscape of holes and trenches becomes flattened every four hours with the tide, so the site of the work is effectively in a constant state of remaking. The shifting sands, held within the area by the harbour wall, render the search extremely difficult – rather like the hunt for a golden ticket in Roald Dahl’s Charile and the Chocolate Factory – and so whilst a rare successful find provides a peak in the narrative, the true plot revolves around the story of the diggers, their motivations, their unexpected encounters and their perception of what art could be.
So how is this public art? The work occurs within the context of the Folkestone Triennial as one of 21 newly commissioned projects for the town. The Triennial is rare amongst scattered site exhibitions of its type as many of the works remain as permanent public artworks for the town. Activated by the mass event around the announcement, Folkestone Digs will continue to exist through collective memory, with many of the pieces of gold lying undiscovered for years to come.